A little over a year ago, Naquasia LeGrand was working at two different KFC locations in New York, her energy focused solely on making ends meet. Last Thursday, the 22-year old came marching into the city's Foley Square at the head of a column of striking fast-food workers accompanied by the sound of chants, horns and beating drums.
She remembers feeling scared the first time she joined a strike. "But then once I got out there and saw the people standing with me, I was like – 'Wow, I don't know what I'm doing, but this is amazing.'"
Ms. LeGrand's transformation is part of a minor revolution brewing at the lowest end of the earnings scale in the U.S. Over the past year, a small but growing group of fast-food workers across the country have begun agitating for higher wages and the chance to organize. Their protests are the most visible component of a broader push to raise the minimum wage, which at the federal level currently stands at $7.25 (U.S.) an hour, or roughly $15,000 a year.
Similar demands are popping up across the country. In the small city that is home to Seattle's airport, voters recently approved a measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Last week, the municipal council of the District of Columbia unanimously endorsed a wage floor of $11.50 an hour for the U.S. capital, mirroring moves by two neighbouring counties. And in California, legislators passed a law in September to raise the state's minimum wage to $10 an hour in stages by 2016.
The new attention to the struggle of the country's lowest-paid workers reflects one of the more dissatisfying aspects of the current economic recovery. Since 2009, 54 per cent of the new jobs created in the U.S. have been low-wage positions, according to an analysis by EMSI, an employment research firm. In the ten occupations where job growth has been the strongest, nine of them pay average wages of less than $14 an hour, it said.
"What you're seeing is the birth of a social movement around wages in America," said David Rolf, the president of a Seattle-based chapter of the Service Employees International Union, which played a key role in the recent ballot measure in the city of SeaTac. The four-year old economic recovery is one that "working people have heard about on TV but have yet to experience."
President Barack Obama reiterated his support for a higher minimum wage in a major speech on income inequality last week. "We know that there are airport workers, and fast-food workers, and nurse assistants, and retail salespeople who work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty," he said.
Mr. Obama and Democratic lawmakers favour a proposal to lift the national minimum wage to $10.10 and tie future increases to inflation, but they face stiff opposition from Republicans and trade associations.
Last week, the International Franchise Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a survey of companies that suggests a significant majority of employers would make "adverse" personnel decisions if the minimum wage were raised even to $9 an hour. Such a policy would ultimately "reduce economic opportunities for low-skilled employees," said Randy Johnson, a senior official at the Chamber of Commerce, in a statement.
Surveys find widespread support for increasing the minimum wage. A November poll by Gallup showed that 76 per cent supported boosting the wage floor to $9 an hour. "Broadly speaking, the public does not view this through an ideological lens," said Gary Burtless, a labour economist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. "They generally support raising the minimum wage when it is below its historical norm, which is where it is now." Adjusted for inflation, the U.S. minimum wage peaked in 1968, when it stood at the equivalent of $10.60 in today's dollars.
The fast-food workers have a clear demand: pay of $15 an hour, which they say represents a living wage. Kendall Fells, one of the organizers of the protests, said he hoped the agitation would goad politicians to action. "It's easier to move policy and legislation when the street heat is there," he said.
Fast Food Forward, the group coordinating the workers, has support from a major service workers union as well as community groups and religious leaders. Last Thursday, fast-food workers in over 100 cities walked off the job, Mr. Fells said, though not in the types of numbers that would have impacted the functioning of the stores.
"The job seems like much more of a career to these workers," he said. The typical person involved in the strikes is over twenty years old, has at least one child and receives some kind of government aid. Researchers from the University of California Berkeley recently found that more than half of the families of front-line fast-food workers use at least one form of public assistance, at an annual cost to taxpayers of $7-billion.
Adam Haynie, 21, was one of those joining last Thursday's strike. He works at a Wendy's in Brooklyn for the minimum wage. He has two children, lives with his parents and can't afford the books for the classes he's taking in the hopes of one day working as a technician for New York's subway system. His hours were recently cut back and his latest weekly paycheck came to about $125. "Everybody has the same problem," he said. "How easy is it to raise children on $7.25 an hour?"
For Ms. LeGrand, the KFC worker, there was no turning back after her first organizing meeting, where she learned how much her company's CEO earned last year (his total compensation was almost $30-million in 2012, according to Forbes magazine). "Our eyes were opened up to how these corporations were using us and abusing us and making all this money off our backs," she said.
Earlier, Ms. LeGrand was planning to continue her classes in computer graphics. Now, however, she's mulling a change in direction and looking to study sociology. "I want to change my major to get into the political world," she said.